52 weeks – 4 May, 2013


Lean-InI was horrified to hear that one of my book clubs had chosen to read Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg, currently the chief operating officer of Facebook. I assumed that it would be a book telling women how to make it in the corporate world—and since that world is not one that attracts me at all, I didn’t think I would get anything out of reading a how-to manual.

Fortunately, the book offers more than that. It does give women readers tips for making it in the corporate world but it places this in a larger context, demonstrating that there are still systemic obstacles in the way of ambitious women—and it comes up with practical suggestions for change.

Sandberg is, refreshingly, willing to describe herself as a feminist (I get tired of people who believe that feminism is all about hating men or demanding more than half the pie—there are many varieties and degrees of feminism but the value embraced by most is equality of opportunity), though initially she thought, like many people, that feminism was no longer relevant to her:

I headed into college believing that the feminists of the sixties and seventies had done all the hard work of achieving equality for my generation. And yet, if anyone had called me a feminist, I would have quickly corrected that notion. This reaction is prevalent even today, according to sociologist Marianne Cooper … In her 2011 article, “The New F-Word,” Marianne wrote about college English professor Michele Elam, who observed something strange in her Introduction to Feminist Studies course. Even though her students were interested enough in gender equality to take an entire class on the subject, “very few felt comfortable using the word ‘feminism.'”

Sandberg believes that women need to take leadership roles in all walks of life before we can have a fairer world. “Women are not making it to the top of any profession anywhere in the world … Of 190 heads of state, nine are women.” To create a world where women who want to do so can make it to the top, she recommends three ways to move forward: sit at the table; make your partner a real partner; and don’t leave before you leave. To hear the thinking behind these pieces of advice, listen to her TED talk.

Music/Spoken Word

Shane KoyczanShane Koyczan and the Short Story Long performing at the Kay Meek Centre in West Vancouver. Shane Koyczan is a slam poet. You may well have heard his definition of what it means to be Canadian at the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games (“We Are More”). Or you might have heard or seen his “To This Day” anti-bullying video.

Koyczan’s band, Short Story Long, is stellar. I particularly loved the harmonies singer and pianist Olivia Mennell provided behind many of the poems. Maiya Robbie, Jordie Robinson, and Jesse Lee round out an accomplished quartet.

Here is the To This Day video:


Crabbie's Ginger BeerCrabbie’s ginger beer, the perfect warm weather accompaniment to crackers and cheese on the patio.


52 weeks – 28 April, 2013


This Is How You Lose Her-coverThis is How you Lose Her, by Junot Diaz. I heard great thing about Diaz’ award-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, so I was keen to read This is How You Lose Her. But it didn’t work for me as well as I’d hoped. Yunior, the main character, is a swaggering, macho man who tells stories of his many lovers. The litany of his conquests and his infidelities quickly becomes tiresome. Somewhere inside the posturing is a more rounded character but his better qualities are not obvious enough. We’re told that he becomes a college professor and an author, though the qualities those roles would require are also hidden.

The most affecting stories are those involving his family, especially his older brother, Rafa. The two-way alienation of the immigrant family in the big North American city is conveyed well. Even as man of mature years, Junior is still stopped by the police because he looks suspicious.

The book is peppered with Spanish phrases and I wasn’t patient enough to plough through all of them. Of course, you can intuit what a lot of them mean from the context, but it still makes the book less accessible than it could have been.

When it works, though, the style flows well.

I must have been smoking dust, because I thought we were fine those first couple of days. Sure, staying locked up in my abuelo’s house bored Magda to tears, she even said so—I’m bored, Yunior—but I’d warned her about the obligatory Visit with Abuelo. I thought she wouldn’t mind; she’s normally mad cool with the viejitos. But she didn’t say much to him. Just fidgeted in the heat and drank fifteen bottles of water. Point is, we were out of the capital and on a guagua to the interior before the second day had even begun. The landscapes were superfly—even though there was a drought on and the whole campo, even the houses, was covered in that red dust. There I was. Pointing out all the shit that had changed since the year before. The new Pizzarelli and the little plastic bags of water the tigueritos were selling. Even kicked the historicals. This is where Trujillo and his Marine pals slaughtered the gavilleros, here’s where the Jefe used to take his girls, here’s where Balaguer sold his soul to the Devil. And Magda seemed to be enjoying herself. Nodded her head. Talked back a little. What can I tell you? I thought we were on a positive vibe.


Party-Animals-title-screenParty Animals, a 2007 BBC TV series. Sadly, the series was cancelled after eight episodes; however, it ends at a point that is dramatically satisfactory.

The party animals are a group of mainly young people who are involved in party politics as researchers, lobbyists and Members of Parliament. There are backroom deals, affairs, betrayals, and plenty of insights into how government works. Although you have to keep in mind that it’s a dramatization that takes liberties, viewers who have read newspapers will not be surprised at the things purported to take place behind the scenes. Ashika Chandrimani (Shelley Conn) is having an affair with her boss James Northcote (Patrick Baladi) while she is being lured away from her job and groomed for political stardom. Researcher Danny Foster (Matt Smith) works for a clever but troubled and frequently ungrateful MP (Jo Porter, played by Raquel Cassidy). He struggles with his unrequited passion for his officemate, Kirsty MacKenzie (Andrea Riseborough).


Scallops-ChickpeaFriesSeared scallops, chickpea fries and roasted brussels sprouts at Pidgin. It sounds like an odd combination but is surprisingly harmonious.

52 weeks – 21 April, 2013


LifeAfterLifeLife After Life, by Kate Atkinson. Atkinson has once more gone off in a different direction with this novel. What a talented writer she is.

In Life After Life, Ursula experiences many variations on a life, as the clock continually gets reset. Think of the countless times in every life where a chance occurrence or a choice—even the tiny choices like turning left or right, leaving on schedule or five minutes later—may have enormous consequences. Ursula is born in 1910 and dies at birth—or maybe the doctor gets there in time and she doesn’t die. She moves to Germany and marries a German in the mid-thirties, or perhaps not. She marries a man in England who seems protective of her, or perhaps she has a premonition that he is not as nice as he seems. Tragedy strikes many times. By living her life over again, Ursula avoids many of these tragedies. But she can’t avoid all of them forever.

Through Ursula’s eyes, we see historical events and changing social attitudes as the twentieth century unwinds. This gives Atkinson the chance to describe characters with her usual light touch: a few words of description, a little dialogue, and we have a whole person before us.

It’s hard to pick a favourite section. The scenes of the London Blitz bring home with stunning force the real horror of that time—but those awful experiences are interspersed with the somewhat comic, somewhat boring routine that any stage of life may become:

Her fellow wardens were a mixed bunch. Miss Woolf, a retired hospital matron, was the senior warden. Thin and straight as a poker, her iron-grey hair in a neat bun, she came with a natural authority. Then there was her deputy, the aforesaid Mr Durkin, Mr Simms, who worked for the Ministry of Supply, and Mr Palmer, who was a bank manager. The latter two men had fought in the last war and were too old for this one (Mr Durkin had been ‘medically exempt,’ he said defensively.) Then there was Mr Armitage who was an opera singer and as there were no operas to sing in any more he kept them entertained with his renditions of ‘La donna é mobile’ and ‘Largo al factotum.’ ‘Just the popular arias,’ he confided to Ursula. ‘Most people don’t like anything challenging.’

They were all part-time volunteers, apart from Miss Woolf, who was paid and full-time and took her duties very seriously. She subjected them to rigorous drills and made sure they did their training—in anti-gas procedures, in extinguishing incendiaries, how to enter burning buildings, load stretchers, make splints, bandage limbs. She questioned them on the contents of the manuals that she made them read and she was very keen on them learning to label bodies, both alive and dead, so that they could be sent off like parcels to the hospital or the mortuary with all the correct information attached. They had done several exercises out in the open where they had acted out a mock raid. (‘Play-acting,’ Mr Bullock scoffed, failing to get into the spirit of things. Ursula played a casualty twice, once having to feign a broken leg and on another occasion complete unconsciousness. Another time she had been on the ‘other side’ and as a warden had had to deal with Mr Armitage simulating someone in hysterical shock. She supposed it was his experience on stage that enabled him to give such an unnervingly authentic performance. It was quite hard to persuade him out of character at the end of the exercise.

It’s one of Atkinson’s many gifts that she can create these stolid everyday characters and this ordinary situation, can introduce tragedy into it, and can then rewind the tape and go off in another direction—and it never palls. You immediately become immersed in the alternative life.  I didn’t want the book to end.


Inspector LewisAfter a suitable period of mourning for Inspector Morse and an initial feeling that Lewis alone couldn’t hold my interest, I capitulated and so am now catching up on the Inspector Lewis series. I watch the episodes out of order (which generally doesn’t seem to matter). Just seen: Dark Matter, the third episode of Season III.

With the departure of Morse, Lewis (Kevin Whateley) has developed some more depth as a character but the best part of the series is the interplay between Lewis and Inspector Hathaway (Laurence Fox). This time, it’s the junior partner, Hathaway, who brings the combination of erudition, social niceties, and inner melancholy that was formerly Morse’s role. Lewis is the no-nonsense, working-class policeman who doesn’t have much time to spend on poetry, philosophy, or people’s psychological complexity. But just maybe there is more to him than meets the eye. He has certainly developed an interest in some classical music, perhaps in part due to his romantic interest in the clarinet-playing pathologist, Dr. Laura Hobson.

Dark Matter has the usual overly complex plot that has to be wrapped up within 90 minutes. There is a murder, the victim being the Master of Gresham College at Oxford University. There is a discipline—astronomy this time, affairs, blackmail, dons and students behaving suspiciously—all the usual mix. I enjoy the atmosphere and am quite prepared to ignore any holes in the plot.


Seared tunaBarbecued tuna at Osaka Sushi in Deep Cove. It could be a delicious start to dinner or it could be dinner all by itself. The only thing that can make it better is to drink both hot sake and cold beer with it.

52 weeks – 14 April, 2013


Her Majest's Spymaster - coverHer Majesty’s Spymaster, by Stephen Budiansky. The concept of the book is interesting: it’s the life of Sir Francis Walsingham during the period he was mired in the intrigues surrounding Elizabeth I. The book is full of well-supported historical details of codes cracked, plots foiled, double agents managed, and perpetrators brought to justice (the fast and ruthless justice of the sort meted out in that period, anyway). Walsingham prospered in spite of the difficulties of supporting a ruler as capricious as Elizabeth, who did not always act on good advice and who never wanted to be seen making unpopular decisions.

I didn’t find it an easy book to read: partly because of the not-entirely-chronological structure and partly because of the density of detail. However, it helps a lot with an understanding of this period of English history. Walsingham is described as the first spymaster — maybe we can think of him as the head of an early combination of MI5 and MI6.


The Game-posterThe Game: a movie from 1997. It’s escapist fun. Nicholas van Orton (Michael Douglas) is an investment banker in his late forties: driven, married to his work, and clearly not having any fun. His younger brother, played by Sean Penn, gives him a 48th birthday present: a gift certificate for a game. Sceptical and dismissive at first, van Orton eventually goes to the company headquarters of Consumer Recreation Services to redeem the voucher. Here you have to start suspending disbelief, as he endures lengthy psychological questionnaires and undergoes a physical examination, all without knowing what it is for.

Then the game begins: strange things start to happen in his life. Again, you question whether you’re willing to invest some belief in the story. At this point, you will either eject the disk and do something else or settle back with a beverage and tell your analytical side to take a break. If you’re willing to do that, you may find it an enjoyable movie. There are gaping holes in the plot but the visuals are well done, the supporting actors are strong, and there are some interesting twists along the way.


Pastries at Thomas HaasCoffee and pastries on the patio at Thomas Haas on Broadway in Vancouver. Each year, the first few times you eat outside on a sunny spring day make the months of grey skies and rain recede rapidly into dim memories.

52 weeks – 7 April, 2013


Screen Shot 2013-04-16 at 10.10.26 PME. M. Forster: A Life, by P. N. Furbank. This is a book so stuffed with names and dates and facts that the casual reader like me is inclined to start skimming. I believe it is considered a valuable resource for the serious Forster scholar and it gives you lots of period detail, but I was just looking for a little more information to fill out my picture of the author. There is both lots more, in terms of the minutiae, and not much, in terms of getting a real sense of the man. He seems to have been wistful, timid, and more of an observer than a participant — although he travelled, in Europe, India, and Egypt, and had many friends and acquaintances, both in the literary world and outside of it. We now know that he was a closeted homosexual but presumably only a chosen few of his contemporaries knew about that. He spent much of his life hoping for a fulfilling love and physical relationship and never having enough of either.

Ironically, in his writing Forster demonstrates that he has learned a great deal about people’s emotional lives, though perhaps more about the sorrows than the joys. Hypocrisy and repression are recurring themes, as are the social tensions and racial tensions of the period. Not surprisingly, you learn more about his inner self through reading his novels than you do through reading whom he had dinner with and what he wrote to his mother.


Chronos - posterChronos, by Ron Fricke. This is a short (less than an hour) film of abstract landscapes and cityscapes filmed with time-lapse cameras to show both the passage of time and the play of light and shade. The scenery ranges from Egyptian pyramids and statuary to a busy street in an unnamed city. The movie has no soundtrack other than the music (composed by Michael Stearns). It is hypnotic and beautiful. You can gaze at it and be transported into a strangely peaceful state.

Fricke was the cinematographer on Koyaanisqatsi, which employed similar effects. He later made Sacred Site and Baraka.


Tea and cookiesTea in my yellow cup and lemon cookies on my little square red plate. The tomatoes and apples just happened to fit right in with this colour palette.

52 weeks – 31 March, 2013


Lionel Asbo: State of England - coverLionel Asbo: State of England, by Martin Amis. A clever, though rather depressing, book about the criminal class in Britain. Lionel Asbo is every law-abiding Briton’s nightmare: a violent parasite who lives by his wits, drains resources from the state, and seems to have no redeeming value. He has changed his name to Asbo after being given an Anti-Social Behaviour Order as a young child.

The book balances critical social commentary (“State of England” seems rather pointed) with black humour and satire. Lionel embodies much of what is wrong with society at the lower end but he is so over-the-top dreadful that you can’t take him seriously. We are occasionally made to feel — well, not exactly sorry for him, but — that he is the product of a particular set of circumstances. He has a coherent philosophy of life that he does his best to pass on to his nephew, Desmond Pepperdine, by dispensing pieces of advice such as: use porn instead of girls; always take a knife with you; prison is a good place to get your head sorted out.

The dogs, Joe and Jeff, were Lionel’s psychopathic pitbulls. Their domain was the narrow balcony off the kitchen, where, all day, the two of them snarled, paced, and swivelled — and prosecuted their barking war with the pack of Rottweilers that lived on the roof of the next high-rise along.

“You told me you fed them. And you never give them they Tabasco!”

“Uncle Li, I didn’t have the cash! They’ve only got the big bottles and they’re five ninety-five!”

‘That’s no excuse. You should’ve nicked one. You spend thirty quid, thirty quid, on a fucking dictionary, and you can’t spare a couple of bob for the dogs.”

“I never spent thirty quid! … Gran give it me. She won it on the crossword. The prize crossword.”

“Joe and Jeff — they not pets, Desmond Pepperdine. They tools of me trade.”

Lionel’s trade was still something of a mystery to Des. He knew that part of it had to do with the very hairiest end of debt collection; and he knew that part of it involved ‘selling on’ (Lionel’s word for selling on was reset.) Des knew this by simple logic, because Extortion with Menaces and Receiving Stolen Property were what Lionel most often went to prison for …

Des, though, has his own ideas and manages to survive his upbringing. He provides the necessary contrast to Lionel by working at school, sneaking off to the library, going to university, getting a job, and starting a family.

A lot of Lionel Asbo is funny, though the relentless awfulness of him gets tiring. He is a figure of cartoon proportions until the end of the book when he seems to commit a truly evil act that doesn’t fit with the so-bad-he’s-funny character we’ve come to know. Ultimately, it’s an unsatisfying book that’s neither one thing nor the other.


God on Trial posterGod on Trial is a 2008 television play written by Frank Cottrell Boyce. The play is set in Auschwitz during World War II. The Jewish prisoners spend their last hours putting God on trial for abandoning the Jewish people.

The question being debated is whether God has broken his covenant with the Jewish people (“We are the chosen people”) by allowing the Nazis to commit genocide.

As the judge, Baumgarten (Stellan Skarsgård) weighs the evidence impartially and makes a revelation of his own towards the end. Schmidt (Stephen Dillane) is the Rabbi chosen as the Father of the Court, a quiet and thoughtful man who recites from the Torah. Mordecai (Rupert Graves) is the Inquisitor of the Court. Ezra (René Zagger) plays a Polish man whose look embodies the horror and loss he has suffered. Towards the end of the trial, Akiba (Antony Sher) breaks his silence with an impassioned speech in which he convincingly condemns God for betraying his people.

It is hard to single out any actor, as all the performances are stellar. I find the current trend for actors to retain their own accents even when they don’t suit the characters, odd and a bit disruptive, but that is the only discordant note in this impressive achievement. It is well worth watching. The dark nature of the material is alleviated somewhat by the prisoners’ decision to spend their remaining hours in traditional intellectual debate — which allows them to retain their humanity.


Antipasto PlatterThe antipasto platter at Cotto on Hastings Street, Burnaby. The bread is warm and very good; the olives, vegetable garnishes and fig spread are a nice counterpoint to the meat and cheese.

52 weeks – 24 March, 2013


My Tango with Barbara Strozzi - coverMy Tango with Barbara Strozzi, by Russell Hoban: a quirky little novel that Hoban followers will love. Me? Not so much. It held a lot of promise: Phil Ockerman, gloomy over the reviews of his latest book and uneasy about Pluto coming over his Sagittarian ascendant, visits the Royal Academy and falls for the image of Barbara Strozzi, a seventeenth-century Venetian singer and composer. He has a transcendent moment:

Perhaps I fainted, I don’t know. I didn’t fall down, but it was a Road-to-Damascus kind of thing. A girl of twelve or thirteen and her mother approached as I stood there. ‘That man has an erection,’ said the girl.

‘Nonsense,’ said the mother as they moved on. ‘It’s probably his iPod.”

There was music in that look — not her own lamentate but something more coarse and sexual and a rhythm of controlled passion. I don’t know the dances of Guardi’s time and Strozzi’s, but for me the music and the dance became tango.

Barbara StrozziNaturally, following this, Phil enrolls in the Saturday evening beginners’ tango class in the basement of St. James’s church in Clerkenwell. There he meets Bertha Strunk, who seems to resemble Barbara Strozzi, and they begin a passionate but troubled relationship.

To this point and for a couple more chapters I was finding this all very funny: the combination of bizarre situations with meandering disquisitions on music and art was appealing. But it all starts to get odder and more difficult to follow and, after a couple more chapters, I would have abandoned it if it weren’t for the fact that this was a book club choice and so duty required that I finish it. There was too much about astrology and, really, too much of everything, resulting in a shapeless whole. The sentences, even paragraphs and pages, are often beautiful:

The carriage was full of young people and vernal expectation but I am a November sort of person, and I thought of the big rain that always comes in November to leave the trees black and bare the next morning and the ground covered with brown leaves.

But there is a haphazardness and lack of cohesiveness about the whole book that didn’t work for me.


Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIIIWatched The Tudors, the TV mini-series about the court of King Henry VIII. It is well done, although some of the historical facts as we know them have been modified to suit some of the sideline plots.

Casting must have been more than the usual challenge, since we all have pictures of these figures built up from our history books and other book and screenplay treatments. Jonathan Rhys Meyers has the sensuality and arrogance that suits my picture of the king, although I imagine Henry to be physically taller and broader. I think Maria Doyle Kennedy is perfect as Catherine of Aragon: kind, devout, regal in a good way, and tragic as she senses Henry drawing away from her. And Sam Neill could not be better as the ruthless Cardinal Wolsey.

There is all that we have come to expect from this epic story: rich surroundings, pageantry, intrigue, betrayals, lust and violence. It’s a visual feast.


Tofu TeriyakiTofu Teriyaki at Sushi Bella on Lonsdale in North Vancouver. Sushi Bella is a lively, noisy place with creative expressions of sushi and other Japanese dishes. My Lady Mango Roll (avocado, beets, and yam tempura roll with mango salsa) was a lot more delicious and less confused than it sounds. The Tofu Teriyaki was good but too much for me: it could have served three or four people. Go with a crowd.